Erie Insurance started out with the vision of two men to create an insurance company like no other… one that emphasized customer service above all else. This is the story of that vision—the journey that took ERIE from its humble roots in 1925 to a FORTUNE®?500 company with over 5,000 employees and 5 million policies in force today.
H.O. Hirt was a legend in his own time, truly! He was one of five children born to Frank and Sarah Hirt in Erie, Pennsylvania. After putting himself through Wittenberg College, he began a career as a teacher, but after a couple of years, H.O.’s teaching came to a halt when he contracted tuberculosis. After beating the deadly disease, H.O. worked a series of jobs and even brought a fledgling grocery store back to being profitable. But the hard physical labor was not good for his health and he left the grocery business to take a sales job at the Pennsylvania Indemnity Exchange. It’s there he met O.G. Crawford and together they started to build the idea of starting a mutual insurance company. They resigned in December 1924 and began organizing the Erie Insurance Exchange. H.O. watched the company flourish and worked well into his 80s.
O.G. Crawford, or Ollie, was an unlikely partner for H.O. Hirt. He left home in Kane, Pennsylvania, at age 16 to join the Navy for six years. He was a former railroad brakeman before getting the job as a salesman at the Pennsylvania Indemnity Exchange. A job that H.O. Hirt recommended him for since their paths had crossed years earlier. After putting the plan in place to start the Erie Indemnity Exchange in 1925, they both were enthusiastic and realized they had a knack for sales. O.G.’s claim to fame was writing 243 apps in just 30 days! O.G. retired only eight years after the company opened, but H.O. always said he could have never started the company without his friend and partner Ollie, and he always kept a portrait of O.G. in the ERIE office.
The Early Years
The two founders – H.O. Hirt and O.G. Crawford – had a plan, which they wrote on a 10-cent tablet (today’s equivalent of a business prospectus), but they needed money. It took 3 months and 20 days – about the length of one Erie winter – to raise the $31,000 they needed, winning over 90 stockholders with their hand-written business plan, their tenacity and their true belief in what they were about to do.
On April 20, 1925, the Erie Insurance Exchange was born – one of the first policies written was on H.O.’s own Dodge touring car. The company’s mantra became “The ERIE is Above all in SERvIcE,” with the “erie” raised in the word service. That still serves as the company’s tagline today.
Evidence of this service was that customers were encouraged to call collect. And if a policyholder had a problem with a claim, he or she could make a phone call directly to H.O. Hirt.
After only three years, ERIE was already expanding. A second office was opened in Pittsburgh in 1928. The company took its first steps outside of Pennsylvania in 1953 when it opened a branch in Silver Spring, Maryland.
At the same time ERIE was expanding its territories, it also expanded its product offerings. In 1934, ERIE introduced the “Super Standard Auto Policy.” It included many features that have since become industry standards. Fire insurance was added in 1940, and inland marine in 1954.
The company was going strong and growing. Within the first two decades, Erie Insurance went from a two-man show to a nationally recognized company.
A copy of H.O. Hirt's 1920 Dodge auto policy -- one of the first written with the new Erie Insurance Exchange. His annual premium was $34.
H.O. Hirt’s lifelong concern for others less fortunate was honored on June 16, 1954, when he and The ERIE were awarded The Brotherhood of Children Award. He is pictured with Erie Mayor Thomas Flatley.
The inside of ERIE’s second office in the C.F. Adams Building
The H.O. Hirt Building, which was inspired by Independence Hall in Philadelphia, took six years to build from initial conception to the placement of the last piece - the cupola.
Bill Hirt at the Silver Spring, MD Branch groundbreaking in 1982.
The Columbus Branch held its 13th annual meeting at Wittenberg University. Left to right: F.W. Hirt, Susan Hirt Hagen, Sarah Elizabeth Hagen (H.O.’s granddaughter), Tom Hagen and a Wittenberg rep.
To provide our Policyholders with as near perfect protection, as near perfect service, as is humanly possible, and to do so at the lowest possible cost.
Symbols of ERIE
ERIE's 144 employees outgrew their home in the C.F. Adams Building in 1956, so a new building was built across the street on Sixth Street. This building was inspired by Independence Hall, and H.O. Hirt persuaded the architects that a building in this Georgian style would not look outdated.
Preserving Our Past
Chairman of the Board Tom Hagen, a student of history like his father-in-law, H. O. Hirt, has taken an active role in the revitalization of Erie’s historic neighborhoods and restoration of some of the city’s treasured homes and public buildings.
He’s earned several awards for his efforts, including the Otto Haas Award for outstanding individual achievement from the Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Society. The top award honors individuals and organizations for preserving historically and architecturally significant properties in Pennsylvania.
Our work to simultaneously preserve and further develop the neighborhood around our Home Office shows that companies can provide for the needs of a modern business, while respecting and honoring the history of a community.